Acids form when certain atmospheric gases (primarily carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides) come in contact with water in the atmosphere or on the ground and are chemically converted to acidic substances. Oxidants play a major role in several of these acid-forming processes. Carbon dioxide dissolved in rain is converted to a weak acid (carbonic acid). Other gases, primarily oxides of sulfur and nitrogen, are converted to strong acids (sulfuric and nitric acids).
Although rain is naturally slightly acidic because of carbon dioxide, natural emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, and certain organic acids, human activities can make it much more acidic. Occasional pH readings of well below 2.4 (the acidity of vinegar) have been reported in industrialized areas.
The principal natural phenomena that contribute acid-producing gases to the atmosphere are emissions from volcanoes and from biological processes that occur on the land, in wetlands, and in the oceans. The effects of acidic deposits have been detected in glacial ice thousands of years old in remote parts of the globe. Principal human sources are industrial and power-generating plants and transportation vehicles. The gases may be carried hundreds of miles in the atmosphere before they are converted to acids and deposited.
Since the industrial revolution, emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere have increased. Industrial and energy-generating facilities that burn fossil fuels, primarily coal, are the principal sources of increased sulfur oxides. These sources, plus the transportation sector, are the major originators of increased nitrogen oxides.
The problem of acid rain not only has increased with population and industrial growth, it has become more widespread. The use of tall smokestacks to reduce local pollution has contributed to the spread of acid rain by releasing gases into regional atmospheric circulation. The same remote glaciers that provide evidence of natural variability in acidic deposition show, in their more recently formed layers, the increased deposition caused by human activity during the past half century.